Precasters would do well to stay vigilant with workplace safety.
By Joan Shirkian-Hesselton
“Economic hardship is no excuse for taking shortcuts with safety and health. When companies start cutting corners, I know you (American Society of Safety Engineers safety professionals) are unfortunately often the first to go. Your job probably is more important in hard times, because workers afraid to lose their jobs won’t raise concerns.” These were part of the closing remarks delivered by Jordan Barab, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during his speech at the American Society of Safety Engineers’ (ASSE) annual conference earlier in 2009. Those remarks echo an unfortunate truth seen by many safety professionals and managers. As the current economic recession drags on, managers and safety professionals in the United States and Canada are finding that positive workplace safety cultures that were thriving during healthy economic times are now diminishing at an alarming rate.
During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the Obama team pointed out deficiencies in both OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Promises were made to ensure people and resources would be allocated to enforcement efforts so these agencies could carry out their original mission of ensuring workers are provided with safe and healthful workplaces. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis also spoke at ASSE’s annual meeting indicating the new administration had laid out specific goals refocusing the “new” OSHA’s efforts on enforcement (see the sidebar “10 Tenets of Obama’s OSHA”). She noted that there will still be voluntary/cooperative programs such as VPP (Voluntary Protection Program) within OSHA; however, emphasis will be moving back toward enforcement, and with steeper penalties. OSHA will be monitoring many areas more closely than it has in recent years, including recordkeeping. In the area of illness and injury reporting, it wants to ensure that work sites are categorizing incidents properly and that work sites are neither under-reporting nor over-reporting injuries and illnesses.
An enforcement-based OSHA is nothing to worry about for employers and employees who are working safely and maintaining safe work sites. This shift in emphasis serves as a good reminder that taking shortcuts on safety is asking for trouble. It is just a matter of time before safety shortcuts start costing. Too often companies that haven’t watched safety closely enough not only have financial costs but also end up with employee injuries or worse. “There are no shortcuts in safety” is more than just a slogan – it is a value to instill in every worker.
It is difficult to imagine how upset the managers and coworkers at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery were in 2005 when a massive explosion caused 15 fatalities and 170 injuries. The lingering question is whether something could have been done to prevent it. The question becomes even more significant when OSHA issued the largest fine it had ever imposed following its post-incident investigation. On Oct. 30, 2009, OSHA announced that it was proposing another $87.4 million in penalties against BP Products North America Inc. for 709 alleged failures to comply with the 2005 settlement agreement and citations, and violations of safety and health standards identified during the agency’s inspection of BP’s refinery in Texas City. While this case has not been closed, it is an indication of the new direction OSHA is taking. It also is a reminder that safety needs to be addressed immediately and consistently.
OSHA can be viewed as a tool to help evaluate safety programs. What can’t be measured either doesn’t get done or doesn’t get done properly! Think how great it feels to count those days without injuries, and remember how nice and proud everyone is to finish an OSHA inspection without any deficiencies. Maintaining compliance with OSHA standards is one of the tools that can be used to assist in grading U.S. workplace safety programs. The OSHA website (www.osha.gov) can be used to help follow deficiencies found during OSHA inspections at various companies (both within a specific industry and in all industries combined). This information can be useful in helping ensure your safety program isn’t falling short by being deficient in similar areas.
It is also possible to use the OSHA Web site to identify the standards most frequently cited by OSHA. This information can be obtained for specific industries or for overall inspections in general. Other work sites can benefit from this information, because it helps identify areas that OSHA is finding deficient time and time again, work site after work site. These areas may require additional attention or resources to ensure they have been properly addressed and are not deficient at your workplace.
The OSHA website also provides an opportunity for public comment on draft rulemaking. It is important that proposed regulations are reviewed by all industries. For example, something that is being considered for inclusion in a regulation could have a major impact on the precast industry. This reviewing period ensures that regulations are developed in a manner that will protect all employees rather than protect some employees in some industries while inadvertently causing hazardous conditions for employees in other industries. Some of the topics that have recently been discussed for regulatory activity include: cranes and derricks, HAZCOM, combustible dust, confined spaces in construction, ergonomics, and safety and health programs.
OSHA provides technical and training resources to help employers and employees identify how to comply with standards. The OSHA Web site offers numerous tools to assist employers and employees in these areas. There are sample training programs, sample safety plans and detailed resources on industry-specific topics.
When OSHA inspectors detect a deficiency, they indicate only what has to be corrected and what the end results need to be based on the regulations. They do not advise on how to actually correct the situation or achieve the end results. Therefore the resources available on the Web site can often provide assistance in these areas.
It is essential that managers and workers always keep in mind that the end goal should always be to provide a safe and healthful workplace. The objective should never be to beat OSHA or avoid a citation at the expense of employee safety or a safe workplace. There are also materials to help understand various standards. One of many valuable resources is the
OSHA Recordkeeping Handbook found at www.osha.gov/recordkeeping/index.html.
NPCA offers safety education at The Precast Show and safety books and DVDs through The Shop. The Association’s Safety, Health & Environmental Committee also provides a quarterly safety program with Tool Box Talks, safety posters, etc. NPCA members also have access to the “NPCA Guide to Plant Safety,” a free download of a safety program that can be customized for individual plants.
Many states administer their own safety programs, called “State Plan Programs.” OSHA has always been responsible for monitoring State Plan Programs; however, with the “new” OSHA, state programs are reportedly coming under stricter scrutiny. Jordan Barab testified Oct. 29, 2009, before the House Committee on Education and Labor indicating that as a result of deficiencies found in Nevada OSHA’s program and this administration’s goal to move from reaction to prevention, federal OSHA will implement a number of changes to strengthen the oversight, monitoring and evaluation of all state programs.
The “new” OSHA appears to be moving back to a more controlled and enforcement-based agency. This should serve as a reminder to employers and employees that the responsibility for workplace safety is as important as it has always been even with challenging economic times. With many resources being stretched, it is not unusual to find employees performing new tasks and assuming additional responsibilities. This makes it more important than ever to stress safety. The “new” OSHA should serve as a tool to help employers in the precast industry provide safe workplaces for employees. This will yield the added benefit of helping ensure you are always prepared to experience citation-free inspections when visited by an inspector.
Sidebar: 10 Tenets of Obama’s OSHA
Here are highlights of the new agenda, as laid out by the Obama
1. OSHA is back. DOL Secretary Hilda Solis and OSHA chief Jordan Barab have strong union ties and are pushing an aggressive OSHA plan that in large part mirrors goals that organized labor has promoted for OSHA.
2. More than 150 new inspectors will be hired in fiscal 2010. OSHA’s budget will increase 10 percent – with enforcement getting $25.5 million versus less than a $1 million increase for compliance assistance.
3. The number of annual inspections will increase from 38,000 nationwide to perhaps 44,000, according to some sources. OSHA has not announced any inspection quota or target. Solis puts it simply: “More enforcement, less voluntary protection focus.”
4. Penalties will be higher for violations. Consider these six-figure-plus enforcement headlines in the five-month span since Inauguration Day in January: more than $1.1 million in penalties against Milk Specialties Co. in Whitehall, Wis.; $500,000 to be paid by Tyson Foods; more than
$255,000 in fines against a New Hampshire firearms manufacturer; $217,000 in fines against Delek Refining; more than $141,000 in fines against Hess Corp.; $105,000 in proposed penalties against an Orlando manufacturer; a Petrolia, Pa., chemical company fined more than $121,000; fall hazards at a Torrington, Conn., site led to more than $118,000 in penalties; $273,000 in fines against a Jamestown, N.Y., employer for lack of asbestos safeguards; $148,000 against Miranda Roofing for fall hazards; and an El Paso, Texas, construction contractor fined $106,200 for alleged workplace safety violations.
5. N ew standards will be promulgated for diacetyl flavoring (popcorn lung), combustible dust exposure protection, cranes and derricks, confined space in construction, and rewriting the hazard communication standard will be consistent with new international MSDS laws, commonly called the Global Harmonization System (GHS).
6. B road, sweeping, new standard proposals will be issued, probably in 2011 or 2012, on ergonomics and basic requirements for maintaining a workplace safety and health program.
7. OSHA will be more aggressive with standards and policing/enforcement than at any time in the last 20 years.
8. The boom years are over for Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) growth. Unions do not like VPP, because they argue OSHA’s audits of candidate companies to gain entry to the VPP program are too weak and inconsistent. Barab says there will be no more annual quotas to
drive VPP expansion.
9. Incentive programs, no favorites of the new OSHA leaders, will be scrutinized during inspections. Again, this reflects union thinking. Unions argue incentive programs too often lead to workers not reporting injuries in order to win prizes, and a focus on worker behaviors over plant physical conditions. How OSHA might penalize employers operating incentive contests that inspectors can document as promoting under-reporting is unclear. An employers’ general duty to provide a safe and healthful workplace, the so-called General
Duty Clause, may be invoked to protect workers against influenza exposure.
10. Recordkeeping accuracy and safety in the chemical industry will receive particular scrutiny as the objects of forthcoming OSHA National Emphasis Programs.
Joan Shirikian-Hesselton is an independent Occupational Safety and Health consultant. She has more than 30 years of experience in Occupational Safety and Health in both the public and private sectors, including a decade of dedicated experience in the precast/prestressed concrete industry. She is a past NPCA Safety, Health & Environmental Committee chair, and she has worked with OSHA as a Special Government Employee.